Wheels for Wellness is a program established in Southern Maryland that looks to get the region’s transportation-disadvantaged citizens to doctors’ offices and other medical appointments to reduce the amount of emergency room visits and missed follow-up appointments. Established in 2018, the program currently serves citizens in Calvert and St. Mary’s counties, with hopes of soon expanding to Charles county.

The Tri-County Council for Southern Maryland provided the seed money to fund a study that showed the number of transportation-disadvantaged citizens in the Southern Maryland area, as well as those with chronic illnesses that missed non-emergency medical appointments. The Arc Southern Maryland then was awarded a grant from the Maryland Transit Administration to provide the program, working in accordance with the Tri-County Council and MedStar St. Mary’s hospital in Leonardtown, according to Arc CEO Terry Long.

“People couldn’t get to the hospital. People couldn’t use public transportation because of illness, or they’re not on the bus line,” Long said. “We tagged along to start building this infrastructure of a network for rides for people that needed them.”

The program provides elderly, disabled and low-income individuals with reliable transportation to and from routine medical appointments free of charge. In its first year, the program traveled over 20,000 miles and provided over 1,000 rides according to Yolanda Hipski, regional transit coordinator for the Tri-County Council.

Hipski credited her predecessor with the founding of the program and mentioned some of the notable figures for people with no vehicles, low incomes and disabilities. Nearly 5,000 households in southern Maryland had no vehicles, or more than 13,000 people, while more than 27,000 had low incomes at the time of the study.

“They have health issues where they can no longer drive, they may lose their jobs and insurance and it quickly devolves for that one patient,” Hipski said. “I understand that somebody who has a chronic disease, they usually have to rely on family members who can only help to a certain point, then they have to look for other transportation.”

Tri-County Council Executive Director John Hartline said that the study highlighted how much of a need the program addresses, but the groups are still bound to regulations of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act. Hartline also noted that transportation cannot be done by “normal means” such as a taxi or ride hailing service, because most if not all of the drivers are not trained in “compassionate care.”

“That has to be somebody that’s experienced and caring like our drivers are, I can’t say enough good about them,” Hartline said. “The patients become attached, some of them are very nervous about traveling, with our drivers they feel more comfortable and we can build a relationship.”

Kelli James works with patients being helped by the program on behalf of CalvertHealth Medical Center. James said that while different medical specialists such as cardiologists and urologists are local, the patients still have trouble accessing them.

“They are sent home with a laundry list of medications but no way to go and get them,” James said. “So we need to get them there to get that care to keep them out of the hospital and keep them on the wellness track.”

Each party involved noted the collaborative effort needed to fortify and maintain the program, especially the support of the medical community. Cheri Reulet, program coordinator of the access health program at MedStar St. Mary’s, mentioned how community health workers provide advocates for the patients and maintain communication so appointments will be attended.

“It’s about empowering [the patients] because we provide this service while the advocates are working with them to establish long-term transportation,” Reulet said. “We want to be able to provide that service in the event that they have an issue and get them back on their feet again.”

The hard work and collaborative effort by all individuals involved in the program has not gone unnoticed in the community. The program was recognized as a 2019 Maryland Health Quality Innovator of the Year in the collaboration category by Health Quality Innovators, a health quality improvement organization that serves Maryland, Virginia, Washington, D.C., and West Virginia.

“The award speaks about the whole project, the collaboration,” Long said. “People had problems in their entities but we all came together to try and overcome them. That is kind of unusual today.”

Hartline said that while addressing issues the program faced, notably funding and approval for the study by the Community Transportation Association of America, he and Long stayed persistent. Hartline said the Tri-County Council is continuing to apply for funding and wants to continue gaining momentum.

“I think we are on the cutting edge with more experience and success than a number of other areas,” Hartline said. “I think that the patients and hospitals are fully aware that our program has the potential to be a model for other areas of the state.”

Jonathan Wathen is a driver for the program who exudes compassion and empathy for those he cares for daily.

“It just feels really nice to help people. I have had disabled people in my family as well; I have seen it firsthand,” Wathen said. “Just personal experiences makes it feel nice to help other people and give back, makes you feel like you have a purpose.”

While the program has helped a large number of individuals thus far, it’s drivers are still vastly outnumbered by those who need transportation. Karen Haynes-Horton is the transportation manager for the Arc and noted the current discrepancies lie within funding.

“To me, Jonathan puts a lot of heart into what he does with his patients,” Haynes-Horton said. “But Jonathan is one guy and he is a really good guy, but he can’t take care of everybody that needs a ride. We need more drivers, we need more vans, we need more funding.”

Reulet said there have been down days and that not every case ends in success, but the successes are what keeps each individual engaged and involved.

“It’s fascinating to watch and to see the progression from where they are when they started to where they are when they are really managing their chronic illness independently,” Reulet said. “I come from a family who believed in service to community and to others so that’s always been a motivator for me.”

Hipski said she looks forward to the future of the program and is constantly looking for ways to improve it. Wheels for Wellness plans to expand to serve all of Southern Maryland.

“Every time there is a patient who misses an appointment, it affects me because I am thinking that missed appointment could have caught something that could have cost somebody their life,” Hipski said. “So that’s the importance of this program. We are trying to save lives in a non-emergency manner.”

“What makes this so special is the cooperation between all of us,” Long said. “We all like working with each other, no one is trying to dominate, we all come from different angles and we actively truly talk with each other and listen with each other to make this work.”

Twitter: @RVollandIndy

Twitter: @RVollandIndy